On his own, Oklahoma defensive end Matt Dimon was never going to replace two-year starter Chuka Ndulue. And Matthew Romar wasn’t going to replicate the impact that defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, who left Oklahoma early for the NFL, had on the Sooners’ defense.
At some point, they might. But in Game 1 against Akron, when both hadn’t started a game in their careers at Oklahoma, it wasn’t going to happen.
Instead, defensive linemen came running onto the field in waves throughout the entire 41-3 season-opening victory. It looked more like a hockey line change than a football substitution.
And it made a big difference.
“They’ve earned time on the field by how they’ve practiced,” Stoops said. ‘We’ve got a lot of depth there with guys that can play. It keeps guys fresh, playing harder and competing for playing time. It’s a real positive right now.”
Romar and Dimon earned the first start of the season alongside Charles Tapper, the only returning starter from last season and the only defensive lineman on the roster with more than 15 tackles last year.
Everyone else got to play, though. Charles Walker came off the bench to earn a game ball. Two years after starting eight games in the middle of Oklahoma’s defense, Jordan Wade recovered a key second-half fumble.
D.J. Ward and Marquise Overton both also saw time for a unit that will likely rotate six or seven players throughout the season. It’ll keep the unit fresh as it develops more individual talent through experience – only Tapper is a senior.
“When we’re playing with fresh people, that O-line isn’t going to rotate as much,” Oklahoma inside linebacker Dominique Alexander said. “. . . Every single one of them is good and could be a starter on any single team in college football. They just have to rotate here because we have a lot of dogs on the D-line.“Those guys rotating in fresh, going against other O-linemen that are tired, they’re beating up the O-line for us. We’re able to just run free. Our D-line is everything. As long as they keep doing what they’ve been doing, we’ll go as far as we want to go.”
The result against Akron was exactly as Alexander, who is a part of a linebacker group that saw eight players fill four roles last Saturday, described. Bolstered by a fresh and active defensive line, Oklahoma posted its fewest allowed points since a season-opening shutout against Louisiana-Monroe in 2013.
The only points came following a special teams fumble and after a red-zone stand.
The 226 total yards was fewer than all but one game last season.
“We are getting better,” Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said of the defensive line. “(Defensive line coach) Diron Reynolds has done a great job with those guys up front. It is better competition. There’s not a big difference in people sometimes, so you want to play them all. You want to keep them all interested if they can produce and play.”
Still, Oklahoma will need more. The Sooners won’t be able to live with just one sack and two quarterback hurries in 26 attempted passes against Tennessee or down the road when the Sooners face TCU or Baylor.
Part of the Oklahoma rotation is switching between a three-man front and a four-man front. Both require vastly different skillsets. In an odd front, it’s all about taking up space and blocks – something Alexander said the defensive line did very well against Akron.
“We’ll be as good as our D-line, and our D-line is the truth,” Alexander said.
With four lineman, with linebacker Eric Striker occasionally as the fourth, disruption is much more important.
“We need to get more production,” Mike Stoops said. “We need to be more violent at the point of attack. We need to be on edges, if that is why you are going to do it. Those guys need to come out of their hips with their facing hands and get penetration.”
Oklahoma’s defensive scheme against Akron was very plain – “vanilla” as Mike Stoops called it. The Sooners did show that they won’t need to rely on a small group in the trenches. Unlike last year, there’s more depth and more versatility.
“We want to have variety,” Mike Stoops said. “We want to be able to get our players to play fast in this game. We’ll have more variety.”